I like it when you spot a recipe you want to try and you just happen to have the ingredients on hand. But what I really love is when you have ingredients you want to use in a new way, and you spot a recipe that can be cut to fit what’s on hand.
So it was with me last week.
I’d been nosing around a local spice shop, and found a packet of their ready made Harissa spice mix. There are plenty of recipes around for this rather exotic (Ethiopian?) combination, but since I always like to get a baseline for what someone else thinks something new should taste like when I can, this seemed like an irresistible purchase. So I didn’t resist.
This was their mix. Roasted red japones pepper, cumin, coriander, two kinds of paprika, garlic salt and caraway, all ground together to a brick red dust that smelled heavenly and, I was to find, tasted even better.
Then there were these shrimp looking so good at the market…and these organic Roma tomatoes at a reasonable price for spring…and then, to top it off, the local Farmers Market started up, and everyone was selling the first crop of the year, which is always spring greens. So I got a huge bag of the spicy mix (arugula. mizuma. red kale. more arugula. can’t have too much arugula…).
And there I was. Shrimp. Spicy greens. Tomatoes. Harissa. All the signifiers for those ingredients dancing ’round in my head. How to use? Marinate the shrimp in oil and harissa, then barbeque, serve on a bed of spicy greens, save the tomatoes for another dish? Slice the tomatoes, layer on a pan, spread out the shrimp atop, scatter harissa and oil over the whole, bake and serve with a spicy green salad tossed with blue cheese viniagrette?
Naw. Not. Quite. Right.
There were all these other things I could have done with the shrimp and tomatoes and the greens, things I was used to doing. But I was dedicated to learning something about that harissa.
Then I was wasting a little time I should have been working reading some recipes on the NYTimes site before my free ten articles a month ran out.
And then there it was.
The perfect recipe.
Sure, it used a combination of spices I did not now and never planned to have in which to marinate the shrimp. Sure, it called for big handfuls of spinach, which I only had in frozen form for those emergencies that can only be solved by having frozen spinach on hand.
But there you go, it was so easy. So adaptable. So exactly what I felt like eating.
I wanted to jump up and high five someone. But there was no one there. No matter. There would be by the time I finished cooking.
Harissa marinated shrimp, sauteed with tomatoes and spicy spring greens, on brown rice.
Take your shrimp (about a pound for two people if this is a main dish, for four if an appetizer–and very good it would be as the latter, too). Mix two teaspoons or more of harissa powder with a pounded clove or two of garlic and enough olive oil to make a nice bright red slooshy wondrously smelling slurp. Toss it with the shrimp. Leave to sit for at least a half an hour. An hour even better.
(And here’s where I want to make a plea for sanity. Why peel and devein them when the shells add so much flavor? Sure it’s messier to eat when you have to peel them at the table, but it’s so much more tasty. And more fun, too. And you can save the shells in the freezer to make a great stock for risotto or arroce later.)
Cook your rice. (You can skip this step if you decide, instead, to wrap the shrimp in heated whole wheat tortillas, another excellent decision to be made along the way.)
Dice your tomatoes, about four decent Romas, I think. Have on hand at least two big handfuls of the spring greens of your choice–more if you have and like them will never hurt.
When it’s just about dinner time, look around to make sure all your forces and all your ingredients are properly marshaled, since things will go fairly swiftly from here on in.
(If you’re using those tortillas, wrap them in foil now, stick them in a 350 oven for about ten minutes to heat…and as you get closer, continue with the shrimp…)
Just about ready for dinner? Heat a large skillet almost to smoking. Add some olive oil, just enough to slide around the bottom of the pan. Toss in the shrimp, continue to toss like mad so that the spices don’t burn, but they do sort of caramelize on the shrimp as they turn pink. (If you took my advice about leaving on the shells, this also helps to keep the succulence inside, another culinary advance.) When they’re half way there (pale rose, say), throw in the diced tomatoes, continuing to toss like mad. Cook for a few minutes till the shrimp are a nice bright sunset pink, and the tomatoes have given up some of their juice and are kind of lying around and melding together with their panmates.
Then add your handfuls of spring greens.
Stir once or twice, just enough to wilt them into the sauce. And…serve!
On rice, wrapped in tortillas, on pasta…whatever you feel like.
By this time, I guarantee, even if there was no one around to high five you at the start of the process, anyone within scenting distance will have wandered into the kitchen, saying something along the lines of, “What’s that wonderful smell? Are we having that for dinner?”
Sit down and enjoy. And I do hope you took my advice about the shells.